By Riley Banks
Celia Hayes earned a degree in English Literature (California State University Northridge, 1976) before an un-slaked thirst for adventure and foreign travel led her to enlist in the United States Air Force.
She trained as a radio and television broadcast technician, and served for 20 years in places as various as Greece, Spain, Japan, Korea, Greenland and Ogden, Utah, in a wide assortment of duties and pleasures. These included midnight alt-rock DJ, TV news anchor, video-production librarian, radio and television writer and producer, production manager, base tour guide, and on one colorful occasion driving a bright orange Volvo sedan across Western Europe from Athens to Zaragoza, Spain, accompanied only by a small and cranky child.
Upon retirement from the military, she worked as an office administrator and manager, catalog editor, executive secretary and part-time classical music announcer, before deciding that writing full time was what she really, really wanted to do.
In 2002, she became a regular contributor to the military-oriented weblog, “Sgt. Stryker’s Daily Brief” (now “The Daily Brief”) writing essays and commentary on matters historical, personal, political, cultural, literary and military under the nom du blog of “Sgt. Mom.” This turned out to be a gateway to writing historical novels, and to work full-time as a freelance writer, editor, blog contributor and small-press publisher.
To find out more about Celia’s work, check out her website http://www.celiahayes.com/
Celia talks to Riley Banks about her journey from Military Broadcaster to Historical writer.
Firstly, tell us a little bit about you and how you came to be a writer.
I came into it kind of backwards, although I always wanted to be a writer. I served in the Air Force for twenty years as a broadcast technician – which, one way and another, meant a lot of writing. When I retired from the military, I kicked around the corporate world for a while, as a secretary/administrative assistant, and began contributing to a military-oriented blog. I got to write about anything that basically interested me, and the readers of the blog began encouraging me to write long-form. Eventually, I began work on a historical novel, To Truckee’s Trail, with the encouragement of a couple of fans – and I had so much fun with writing it, that I decided that I wanted to write full-time, and do a little admin/secretarial work on the side, instead of the other way around.
Is this your first book or have you written others?
No, Truckee was the first of six historical novels set on the American frontier. Three are a linked trilogy, set in the German settlements in Texas: The Adelsverein Trilogy, and the other two –Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart are set in early Texas. They follow a woman’s life from the time when Texas was a Mexican possession up through the war for independence, and the days of the Republic of Texas. There was a lot of dramatic history going on in that time and that place, which is almost all unknown, even to people living in Texas.
If you have written others, which is your favorite book?
I’m torn, actually – this is like asking ‘Which is your favorite child?’
Tell us about your current book and what makes it special.
Well, Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart are my most recent books – and it was going to be one single book, but it turned out there was a lot to cover in the life of one woman, and a lot of interesting characters and events. I tried very much to put the Texas war for independence into context, as ordinary people experienced it. There was a lot more going on than most people know, and it was a great deal more complicated. Then there was the existence of an independent Texas, which was also complicated, and also with a lot more going on … did you know that Mexico invaded twice more, during that time, and that relations between the Republic of Texas and France were ruptured by what was called the Pig War? And then there was the Archives War, which was a ruckus over where the capital city of Texas should be, and involved a woman innkeeper and a small cannon…
What genre is it and who is the target audience?
Historical fiction – very well-researched historical fiction. Because of the time and setting, I can also call them westerns. Curiously enough, many of my fans are men, I guess because I am writing about historical events as accurately as I can.
Describe your favorite scene in the book.
Again – that’s like asking about my favorite child! I do have some great scenes, scattered throughout, but one of my best is in To Truckee’s Trail, where the pioneer wagon train party is stranded in the mountains, and it’s winter, snow is falling, they are exhausted and nearly spent, their oxen are starving and beginning to fail … and their leader has them make one last camp, and work out what they are going to do next. He’s kind of an awkward, inarticulate man, but he makes one very moving speech. They have gambled, every inch of the way, he tells them – and now they must make one more gamble on survival.
If you had to choose one favorite character, who would it be and why?
I think my one favorite character – since I kept coming back to him – is Carl Becker, in the Adelsverein Trilogy, who also is a presence in Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart, as the heroine’s younger brother. I based him on several combat veterans whom I knew in the military, who were soft-spoken, gentle and very quiet family men – but when you looked at their awards and decorations – you also knew that they had served in some hard and violent places. Carl Becker is an early Texas Ranger, a soldier and a survivor of the Goliad massacre … but he eventually settles down, marries and is a devoted husband and father. I also based a lot of the relationship between Carl and his sister Margaret on my own relationship with my youngest brother, which was and is very close.
If your book were made into a movie, whom would you want to play the main characters?
The Trilogy would work better as a TV mini-series, actually, and I think I would opt for relatively unknown actors. But Owen Wilson looks rather like I visualized Carl Becker – tall, blond and deceptively not-very-bright-looking. And in Truckee, the character of Dr. John Townsend, I always visualized as Colin Firth’s older, fatter brother!
Where do you draw your inspiration? Is there anything in your book based on real life experiences, or is it all fiction?
Most of the plots and characters in my books are based on actual historical events and on real people … which provides a lot of material, since usually what really happened was so much more incredible and dramatic than anything I could possibly make up! To Truckee’s Trail was based on the experiences of a wagon train party which proceeded the Donner Party by two years; were stuck in the mountains in deep snow, ran out of food, had to split up, and yet still arrived in California with all alive and well – yet no one has ever heard of them! The Trilogy was based on the story of how a consortium of German princes and noblemen took up a land grant in Texas and proceeded to transport 7,000 German farmers and craftsmen to the frontier, before the consortium went bankrupt and left the new settlers to look after themselves and make peace with the Comanche Indians. It’s a great story; several counties in Texas were entirely German-speaking until well into the 20th century – but again, hardly anyone outside of the Hill Country has ever heard of it. So – make a ripping good story out of these happenings!
Is there a message in your novel that you hope readers will grasp?
Yes – that what really happened, historically – is more interesting, fantastic, and dramatic than anything a writer could possibly make up. I am hoping to teach readers about that history and to connect with it in a way that just isn’t taught in schools.
Where can people purchase your book?
I’m on Amazon worldwide, and in Barnes & Noble; all my books are available in Kindle and Nook versions, and as eBooks in other formats on Smashwords. Bookstores can order my books through Ingram, the book distributors.
Who designs the covers of your books?
My little brother – who is a professional graphic artist!
Are you Indie published or Trade published?
Indie. Early on, I followed the advice of a book-blogger, Michael Allen, the Grumpy Old Bookman at http://grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com He said basically, give the traditional trade route a year. If no luck, and your book is a solid good read, go indie. I did, and never have looked back.
Describe the publishing process you went through? Did you engage an editor, beta reader, formatter, designer, publicist or any other professional to help in the process?
I worked at first with a POD house for my early books, and then I partnered with a local subsidy publisher in San Antonio. The senior partner is a fantastically thorough editor with nearly 30 years in the business, and she loves my books. I do the formatting myself – it is not that hard, given skills with word-processing software – and I hired my brother to do the cover design. On Deep in the Heart, and for the dustjacket of the all-in-one hardbound of the Trilogy, he used photographs that I had taken myself for the covers. Did I mention that one of the things that broadcasters were trained to do was to double as a photographer? I’m no Annie Liebowitz, but I do get by. As for publicity – I do talks to groups locally; social clubs, book clubs, library groups. Because of the local history angle, I speak to various German heritage associations, and to Civil War groups.
Do you have an agent or are you looking to get one in the future?
No, and no. Not sure how I could use one at this point.
What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have a day job, and if so, what is it?
I am the junior partner in Watercress Press, who publishes my own books – so I work as editor, formatter, picture editor and all-around administrator.
How important is planning to you? Do you plan the whole book or just start writing?
I pretty much map out the whole general plot beforehand, with a brief outline of what is to happen in each chapter, and who the characters are. Then I free-hand the conversation, character development, descriptions – everything else. Usually, about three-quarters in, I have a scathingly brilliant notion, which means going back and re-writing earlier chapters to accommodate it.
What project are you working on now?
The current work in progress is tentatively entitled The Quivera Trail – it picks up some of the younger characters in the Trilogy – and concerns the socially inept and insecure daughter of an English noble who marries a Texas cattle rancher out of sheer desperation … and then has to adapt. I think of it as “Mrs. Gaskell meets Zane Grey.”
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author and what did you learn from that criticism?
It wasn’t exactly tough criticism, exactly – but it was a comment by a reviewer, that I was a perfectly adequate genre novelist. After I thought about it – I agreed. It’s a perfectly fine thing to be, and I certainly don’t harbor any delusions of literary grandeur.
What has been the best compliment?
There have been a great many from people whose ancestors I mentioned or wrote about, who were just as pleased as anything over how I ‘wrote’ their g-g-g-many-times grandfather or grandmother.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Write. Blog. Get it out there in front of an audience. The more that you do, the better you will get at it.